In the Autoblog Garage: 2009 Acura TL SH-AWD

Click above for high-res image gallery of the 2009 Acura L SH-AWD

2008 has been a busy year for Acura's design and manufacturing engineering staff. It's not often that a brand refreshes its entire sedan lineup in the span of just over six months. Of course, in Acura's case that only amounts to three cars, but includes two completely redesigned cars with the TL and TSX and one heavy face-lift for the RL. Actually, "heavy face-lift" is something that applies to all three, as Acura has implemented a new front end design for its sedans that has seemingly gone over with pundits like the proverbial lead balloon.

We use the word "seemingly" because while most of the media and the majority of commenters here on Autoblog have howled in visual pain whenever the new shield grille pops up, it doesn't seem to have hurt sales. In fact, sales of the both the TSX and TL have been up significantly in the first few months that the cars have been on sale. Now that Acura has dropped off a 2009 TL SH-AWD in the Autoblog Garage for a week, it's time to see if our initial impressions need adjusting.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

We got our first look at the 2009 Acura TL back in July, and at that time felt it was the best executed of the three cars. It turned out from talking with Acura designers that the TL was actually the first of the three designed around this new look, though it was the last to debut. This means the new shield grille was something of an afterthought for the RL and TSX. Regardless of what you might think of the shield grille, it certainly looks better integrated on the TL than the other two cars.

In profile the TL is a bit of a mixed bag. From the A-pillar back, the fastback roof-line adds to its sporting character. Some have complained that the C-pillar is too derivative with the kinked angle of the back end of the side glass. Another questionable design element is the car's long front overhang, although this is largely defined by the mechanical architecture underneath. Since the TL is derived from the transverse engine, front-wheel-drive layout of the Accord, the front wheels are pushed back from the corners.

On the plus side, the swept back corners mean that the overhang is really only obvious in profile view. If you move to either a front- or rear three-quarter view, it becomes far less obvious. Personally, we find the rear three-quarter sight-line to be the TL's strongest angle.

Under the hood, the SH-AWD version of the TL gets the same 3.7L V6 now found in the RL. At 305 horsepower, this is the strongest engine that Honda has ever offered in North America. At 273 lb-ft of torque, the 3.7L even has some decent twisting force, a relative rarity in Honda engines. The larger bore of the 3.7 means that Honda has skipped the cast iron liners of the 3.5 in favor of the same silicon-impregnated aluminum that was pioneered way back when on the Chevy Vega.

For now if you want Acura's torque vectoring Super Handling-All Wheel Drive system, you'll have to be satisfied with a 5-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters on the steering wheel. Next year Acura will make a 6-speed manual gearbox available in the SH-AWD. For now, though, the automatic is not a bad option. When you engage manual shifting mode, the gearbox actually stays in the selected gear all the way to red-line and bounces off the rev-limiter instead of automatically shifting up.

The interior of the TL is fairly typical of contemporary Acuras. The top surface of the dashboard is a single piece and seams in the lower areas are kept to a bare minimum. The seats are covered in a nice soft leather and offer firm supportive side bolsters.

The TL offers two memory settings for the position of the seats and mirrors, which itself is not unusual. A unique feature, however, is storage of the memory settings in the two key-less fobs. Anyone whose spouse/partner is of significantly different stature will surely appreciate this, as each partner gets their own fob. You get in the car, set everything up and then store your settings in your own fob. Once your fob is programmed, when you approach the car a proximity sensor detects which fob is next to the drivers door. As you open the door, everything automatically moves to your desired position. Very handy indeed.

On the road the 3.7L V6 has a reasonable amount of grunt and moves the nearly two-ton TL with relative ease. The TL, like so many other cars, has grown progressively bigger and heavier with each generation and that extra mass can be felt especially in the AWD model. it simply feels more dense when changing direction, especially compared to the lighter front driver. In spite of that mass, the super handling-all wheel drive can pay dividends in dynamic behavior when pushed to the limit.

While the front drive TL tends to understeer, you can get the back end to loosen up with some aggressive trail braking into corners. For a driver who wants to test his skills, the lighter model is likely to be more a more rewarding ride. It provides limit handling behavior more commensurate with driver's commands.

The torque vectoring system in the SH-AWD sends drive torque not just to the wheel with traction but it works in conjunction with the stability control to send power to either the inner or outer wheel to help guide the car in the desired direction. If you accelerate too early before the apex in the front-wheel-drive TL, engine torque will be cut and the inside rear wheel will be braked to help turn in and fight understeer. In the SH-AWD model, instead of cutting torque from the engine, power will get sent to the outer rear wheel to help push the outside of the car around.

The overall impression is of a much more buttoned down machine that goes precisely where you point it and does so at a speed in proportion to your pressure on the accelerator or brake. It can make the most ham-handed driver look much better then he or she really is. It's faster and easier to drive, but perhaps less challenging to wring out. On the other hand, someone looking to exercise a car this way might prefer to wait for the manual transmission version.

For those who find the new Acura TL's look appealing, or at least tolerable, it's a solid, well built sedan. It's devoid of any early build glitches like the ones we noticed the first time we drove the 2008 Accord. The interior is roomy, comfortable, well laid out and put together. The '09 TL is also capable on the road and reasonably engaging to drive. It's not a hardcore sports sedan, but it isn't meant to be. With a price tag of $42,235 for the SH-AWD model (with the Tech package), it doesn't exactly come cheap, and during our week with the car we averaged about 20 mpg.

The new styling of the 2009 Acura TL is polarizing, but as often happens, those who don't hate it will likely love it. The big question for Acura is whether or not the latter outnumber the former. So far in its first few months on the market, TL sales are up compared to the same period the year before, including a 22-percent jump in October. Only time will tell if these numbers hold up after the early adopters are done buying.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

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